Novel in a Day

My first drawings as a child were of zombies, but this was not by choice. I started out drawing the typical disproportionate to heads, limbs of varied length, each character with the same facial expression, eyes hollow and soulless. I did this because I didn't how to draw, not because I liked zombies. I moved to tracing for a while, mapping my pencil over the lines of professionals until I could eventually draw by sight, but still the lines I drew were not my own, they were second rate copies of someone else's imagination.  

I never inked or colored any of my drawings. I never did anything more with them because I was afraid of ruining them. Each one I signed and saved for fear that I would never be able to draw another picture of equal quality again.

I honestly don't know what I was so afraid of. My young mind could not grasp the concept that I was getting better. Yesterday's work might have been better than today's but last month's wasn't. So I stayed trapped at the same level of artistic ability because I refused to take chances.

One of my problems was not having a mentor. I looked at art and assumed that it came out just as I saw it. I thought this all the way up until art school, and even then I didn't really get it. Slowly, as I watched and learned. I started to realize things about these godlike figures and their ability to produce art that made me look like a hack; they were hacks too.

I'd been out of art school for about five years when this finally dawned on me. I was watching videos on YouTube of comic artists working at their craft. All around them were reference drawings. Facial expressions, hands, bodies from extreme points of view. These guys didn't sit down and have excellence spill from their pens. They brainstormed, sketched, narrowed their ideas down, then drew from reference materials. When they did produce a fantastic sketch on a whim it was of a character that they'd drawn a thousand times before in a position they'd drawn ten thousand times.

Every artist has reference material. If they get a character into a position that they can't remember how to draw, they look it up. When I'd get to that same point I'd throw up my hands in defeat and admit to myself that I had no idea what I was doing. I wasn't an artist, I didn't know how to draw. I could mimic someone else's work, but couldn't create my own.  

Those videos helped me to realize that I was holding myself back with my own perception of how art was created. And just the other day I was watching the video included in this post. I watched how the artist repositioned the nose, drew and erased lines, added and tweaked, took away. I related it to my own writing, how I'll write out a story in one go, likened to a sketch, then have to go back and tweak it, polish it off. I'll jump around, reworking the beginning, then hopping to someplace just after the middle.

I think all artists have a tendency to forget this, especially writers. Writers can't look back over a sketchbook and say unequivocally that what we produced today is better than what came before it. We can't sit down and watch a video of another writer's process in hyper speed. We don't go to classes with other artists, set up our easels and write out stories that everyone around us can see taking shape as we go, with an instructor walking around the class and whispering over our shoulder compliments and suggestions.

I think that we too often assume that the words have to come out perfectly. If we can't achieve beauty in a single stroke then it's not art. If anything, I've found that art is not so much an expression of perfection, it's an experiment in patience and perseverance. It's hanging in there to make all the little corrections and changes necessary to make the end product look effortless. It has to do with that notion of not actually being an expert but making it look like you are. Remember this as you pull out something you shoved into a desk drawer long ago. We all have those stories, stories that we were so enthralled with until we realized that what we'd created was crap.

Unlike an oil painting that dries and can't be reworked after a certain point, our stories can always have life breathed back into them. We can always come back to those soulless eyes once we've learned how to draw them, once we've found reference material to pattern them after. So allow yourself to sketch and experiment and remember that writing is an experiment in patience and perseverance.

Images: 1) Zombie Tramp by toxiccandie, 2) terrible sight drawing done when I was 13, 3) Quick sketches I did during a literary criticism class back around 2002, I was not nearly as focused as the young lady I sketched :).


Kristen Stevens said...

A very well written post!

You bring up a lot of good points about a novel being a sketch. It's funny. Drawing to me is fun. I sit there for a few hours, and when I'm done, I have something that I can look at and say that I either like it or I don't. With writing... it can take me hours upon hours upon hours before I have something decent, and that's only if I do a short story. Writing is always work to me.

I've never thought of looking through youtube videos for drawing guides. I'll have to give it a shot!

Also: there are a few good courses out there for writing; mind you, they don't come around and talk to you about your work, but the instructors are wonderful and there are community boards that you can talk to other writers.

My favorite is Holly Lisel's "How to Think Sideways". I graduated from it earlier this year, and let me just say, she has a real spark for looking at writing from another angle.

Paige Bruce said...

I've always wondered whether taking writing courses would be worth the benefits. For me, I think the biggest benefit would be an environment that feels like "Work-Time".

Great article! Really hit the nail on the head for a feeling that keeps a lot of us writers in the "aspiring" category.

By the way, I *know* you don't like the Warbreaker cover, but I just loved watching the video of Dan Dos Santos painting it with oils.

Amber J. Gardner said...

I love this article! I also like that you also like art. I've self taught myself since I was little, but never really got anywhere with it.

I think this is totally true, but even when I know it's true, my novel is at the sketch form and I'm starting to take it to the oil stage and I keep hesitating. That oil paints looks so damn intimidating and difficult to master. I keep second guessing myself, especially when I keep thinking of all the work it needs.

I keep thinking I can't do it. But I have to remember that it really is an experiment and more playing around than creating the ultimate masterpiece.

David Noceti said...

I'm glad you ladies enjoyed this article. When I started it I was thinking, “How lame, no one wants to hear this crap.” But yay for being wrong. :)

Kristen: YouTube is a great source for material for all sorts of things, even writing. Matter of fact, just last night I used it to see what a realistic ride in an ambulance might be like. And I might have to check out that writing course you talked about.

Paige: I never said I didn't like the artwork, the artwork is beautiful, I just don't think it works as a cover. :) Although it does look much better without all of the writing all over it.

Amber: That's the beauty of the novel though. While we don't get as immediate results, it's always pliable. We can come back to it again and again and still be able to manipulate it. Of course that's also the danger of this form of art as well.

What helped me a lot with writing novel length stuff was realizing that I was probably going to throw it away when I was done, so might as well not get hung up on it. When the Writing Excuses guys talked about the number of books they'd written before they were published, I really got to thinking about it. Then I considered the novels that I'd gotten right up to the end with and stopped because I came back to them later and realized that they weren't good enough. It was then that I decided that I just needed to do it. Let the paint dry and see what I was left with at the end. Otherwise all you have is a studio filled with unfinished work.

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